Turkish academician to lead Food Science Department of Purdue University

07 May 202112 min reading

Turkish professor Senay Simsek, who has been deemed worthy of many awards for her studies on food chemistry and wheat quality, was appointed as the Head of the Food Science Department of Purdue University, among the 'Big Ten School' in the USA. To lead one of the world's leading food science programs, Prof. Simsek shared her views to Miller Magazine about her vision and the future of agriculture and food.

Dr. Senay Simsek
Head of the Food Science Department
Purdue University

The success of Turkish professor Senay Simsek, who had been deemed worthy of many awards for her research on food chemistry, carbohydrates, and wheat quality at North Dakota State University (NDSU) in North Dakota, known as the breadbasket of the United States, has been crowned with a significant appointment. Dr. Simsek was appointed the Head of the Food Science Department of Purdue University in Indiana, one of the most prestigious universities in the USA.

Announcing the appointment, "We are excited to welcome Dr. Simsek home to the department, where she earned her doctorate. She has had an incredible career at North Dakota State University, rising to her current position of an endowed professor and earning an outstanding reputation as a researcher in food chemistry and carbohydrates. She brings proven experience as a leader, researcher, and teacher to the food science department and the college leadership team." said Prof. Karen Plaut, Purdue University's Glenn W. Sample Dean of Agriculture.

Dr. Simsek is assuming the position of Head of the Department of Food Science at Purdue University, in a period where the vital importance of food security and safety and grains in human nutrition is comprehended better with the Covid-19 pandemic. Therefore, she will bear a tremendous responsibility. It should be noted that Purdue University is one of the leading institutions in the USA and the world in terms of agriculture, agricultural industry, and grain research programs. Significantly, the academic ranking of the Agricultural & Biological Engineering Department isnumber one in the USA.College to be led by Dr. Simsek, the Department of Food Science is also a unit that includes lecturers who have received the World Food Prize. As a 'land-grant university where scientific research is carried out for the public weal, Purdue is also famous for graduating Neil Armstrong, the first person who walked on the moon.


This appointment has a special meaning for Dr. Simsek. She is excited to return to the department where she  obtained her Ph.D. degree. ""I am returning to my university as the head of the department. HDuring my education at Purdue, I took classes from at least half of the current faculty members. It is an honor for me to be deemed worthy of such responsibility by them. I am truly honored to have the opportunity to lead 'Purdue's Food Science Department. During my graduate education at Purdue, I was trained by the best professors in the world and worked with outstanding colleagues. The food science faculty, staff and students have the extraordinary ability to bring together cutting-edge research and education across multiple disciplines to address national and global challenges. I look forward to working with the members of the department to advance our global impact," Dr. Simsek remarks.

She describes also the vision that inspired her to apply for and accept the position of the food science department head. "Food encompasses many areas of society. It is power; it is essential; it is personal; it is cultural; it is science, and no one can survive without it,” she said. “Currently, the food industry is going through a revolution. We have challenges and opportunities. Emerging technologies provide us a range of opportunities to transform our food and agriculture systems. We must develop a strong vision to enhance food science at Purdue with a focus on being at the forefront of research, training students and providing the best service to the scientific community and the citizens of Indiana, the United States and the world."


Of course, it is not a coincidence that Dr. Simsek is deemed worthy of such an important task. This is the result of a determined work in line with the goals she set in her mind in the field of science and academia, about which she has been quite curious since reading the Turkish Scientific and Technical Journal, which she managed to buy by saving her allowances in her middle school years.

After receiving her undergraduate education in Zonguldak Bülent Ecevit University's Chemistry Department, Dr. Simsek completed  her master's degree in Gebze Technical University's Department of Biochemistry. After successfully completing the program here with the guidance, energy and support of Dr. Aziz Tanrıseven, Dr. Simsek's  brilliant academic journey in the USA started in 2002. At that time, she was planning to stay for only three months in the USA, but things have changed a lot for her since then.

In 2002, she started her Ph.D. in Food Science Department at Purdue University and completed in December 2006. Right after her gradutaiton, she appointed as an assistant professor in Plant Sciences Department at NDSU in January 2007. She has authored and co-authored hundreds of research papers, and conference contributions in the area of starch chemistry and digestibility, mycotoxin analysis and the structure-function relationship of polysaccharides. Her research focuses on the effects of the chemical composition of grains on final product quality. “We perform complete wheat quality analysis from field to table,” she calls.

Dr. Simsek is an active member of the Cereals and Grains Association (formerly known as American Association of Cereal Chemists International (AACCI). She has received numerous awards for research and teaching and published more than 200 peer-reviewed journal articles. She received the 2013 American Association of Cereal Chemists International Young Scientist Award for outstanding contributions in basic and applied research to cereal science. Dr. Simsek currently is the Bert L. D'Appolonia Cereal Science and Technology of Wheat Endowed Professor.


When asked about her vision as the head of the department, “Purdue Food Science is one of the premier food science programs in the world and we all know that this did not happen by coincidence. The department has a long history of incredible accomplishments of the faculty, staff and students. Future is ours to create. We want to develop science-based solutions for grand challenges in the Food Science area through innovation, learning and & outreach. 'It's clear that these are challenging times due to the pandemic. The food science department needs to be in the present, addressing contemporary problems during the change.” she answers. “We will be part of the big idea of 'growing sustainable 'future' through our contrition in the food science area. We will address global challenges and will prepare students and solve challenges impacting us locally in State of Indiana, across our country and around the globe. Success is about impact and making difference. I hope I would have the opportunity be one of the difference makers. I will do my best to create a climate of excellence.”

She describes food science as a growing field with a direct impact on public health & food security. “The increasing globalization of the food supply chain has resulted in even the simplest of meals—a salad, pasta, or a bowl of soup—being made up of ingredients that come from all around the world. While globalization has many benefits, it also presents the opportunity for foodborne contaminants & illnesses to spread across international borders & impact more people.”


Sharing her views on the change in the agriculture, food and grain industries, Dr. Simsek emphasizes that the COVID-19 epidemic triggered some trends and lists them as follows as outlined by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT):

  • Eating for immune health steals the spotlight
  • Meat analogs go mainstream
  • CRISPR (Clustered Regularly İnterspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) answers the call for more nutritious foods
  • Urban farming potential unlocked
  • Technology answers the call for increased food safety

What do we eat & how does it affect us? What & when should we eat? How does what we eat promote our health across our lifespan? How can we improve the use of food as medicine? “These are important questions that consumers are looking for answers,” she mentions.

Dr. Simsek particularly points out CRISPR technology. “Currently, scientists in many laboratories around the world are working on this issue. With this technology, the grain yield will be increased and disease-resistant grain varieties will be developed. In the forthcoming years, we will witness that technology and digitalization will be used in agriculture more intensely," she says.


She advises wheat breeders to follow the escalating healthy eating trend well: “Breeders have an enormous role to play. They should not just try to increase yield in wheat. Yes, it is important to produce varieties resistant to drought and disease. However, on top of that, compounds that will positively affect our health should be included in wheat programs. And this is attainable with CRISPR."


When it comes to wheat genetics and modern/hybrid wheat varieties, the claims of mediatic scientists who say, "Bread is harmful, it causes cancer. Keep away from flour, bread, and pasta," becomes a topic of conversation. Stating that there is a trend not only in Turkey but also in many countries where wheat and bread are presented as something 'evil', Dr. Simsek notes that claiming that bread makes sick is completely unfounded and baseless.

“We have revealed this with our scientific studies. I will continue to study in these areas again. I want to clean up the false information  on wheat. I'm ready to confront scientists who go on TV and claim with hearsay information alleging that bread is poisonous. These explanations are very useless and wrong. They keep saying, 'If you eat bread, you will get fat' or 'Bread is white poison'. Mankind has been eating bread for thousands of years. Wheat is a product that saves people from famine and hunger. There is no basis for the claims made about wheat. If a person consumes five loaves of bread in one meal, that bread will make him fat for sure. However, you will get fat if you eat 15 bananas a day either. You will also get fat if you eat food right before going to bed. 'Bread and wheat kill 'you'… All of this is wrong. You can wide variety foods, but it is the time and amount you eat that matters.”

She also responds to the claims that the increases in celiac disease cases are caused by modern wheat varieties. Explaining that she has examined gluten levels in modern wheat varieties and compared them with ancient ones, Dr. Simsek states that they revealed that the relationship between modern wheat and gluten sensitivity does not stem from the genetic development of wheat varieties. “We have investigated whether the proteins that cause celiac disease were found in wheat varieties of hundreds of years ago. We sought an answer to the question 'Was it the breeders who produced these proteins?' As a result of our analysis, we have found that there were proteins that cause celiac disease also in wheat grown 150 years ago.”

360° VIEW

We also asked her advice for young students who want to advance in an academic career like her. The first point she draws attention to was the "interdisciplinary approach". Dr. Simsek gave examples from her personal experience and said, “My specialty is chemistry. However, the application of this in food has contributed a lot to me. Everything that seemed in black and white to me suddenly became colorful. There are so many chemistry applications in food… Young people should adopt an interdisciplinary approach rather than a 'this is my only field' approach."


Another point that she underlines is the "360° view". She defines this as 'being able to look at real problems from different points of view'. She states that it is important for young researchers to follow the agenda very closely, to identify real problems, to address them scientifically, and to find solutions. At this point, she is reminding us of the close relationship between wheat producers, academics, and flour industrialists in the USA. She explains that everybody wins in the collaboration among producers-universities-industries.

“When I talk to a miller as a scientist, I hear real problems from him. For example, the miller wonders whether the wheat he buys is premium quality and whether his money is worth it. We perform some tests in our laboratory to analyze wheat with our students. While a  student gains experience with the experiments, a flour industrialist gets R&D knowledge that he wouldn't manage to afford on his own. On the other hand, the producer learns what kind of deficiencies the industrialist has for the expected quality wheat. Everyone wins. We come together with wheat producers, domestic and foreign wheat buyers, and wheat geneticists within the scope of the programs we provide at the university. Such training programs not only help industrialists and farmers but also allow our students to find solutions to real agricultural problems."

Another recommendation by Dr. Simsek to young people is always setting goals for themselves. “These goals may be either short or long term. However, they should definitely set a goal and do their best to reach it. They should never be satisfied with the minimum. They need to push their limits. When you do this, believe me, something will come out. They must benefit from their teachers and professors at the maximum level. So do your best and hope for the best."

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